JOHN WESLEY POWELL AND THE GRAND CANYON America's most famous red rock formation is located in Arizona, and is the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon was sculpted by the downward movement of the Colorado River through it, and contains towering buttes, mesas, and valleys. Visitors to Grand Canyon National Park can view old lava flows, hills of volcanic debris, and igneous rock.
Before construction of the Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams along the Colorado, scientists estimated that the average flow of the river, during a typical June month, might be around 85,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). (Peak flows, on a number of occasions over the previous 4,000 years, might have reached over 250,000 cfs. As the primary river of the Southwest, the river drains about 242,000 square miles of land, from the states of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah,, New Mexico Arizona, Nevada, and California. The headwaters are located in Rocky Mountain National Park. It passes through the Grand Canyon, beginning at Lee’s Ferry and dropping 2,200 feet before it reaches the end of the Canyon, at the Grand Wash Cliffs, 277 miles away. Since the building of the dams, the river's flow rates have dropped to around 30,000 cfs and the water temperature has dropped from as warm as 80 degrees F to an average 42 degrees F, which has driven native fish to endangerment or extinction, and the introduced rainbow trout has compounded this loss. The red silt and sediments that gave the river its color and name are trapped behind the Glen Canyon Dam in the bottom of Lake Powell.
The first Europeans to see the canyon were members of the exploration party headed by explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, in late 1540. Because it was so very difficult to gain access to the canyon, it was not fully explored for more than three hundred years. Several expeditions by the United States Army began about 1850, but the first passage by an American through the Canyon was accomplished by John Wesley Powell in 1869.
John Wesley Powell was a child of the frontier, growing up on a subsistence farm in Wisconsin He showed an early interest in geology, botany, and Native American culture. He became a self-taught teacher in order to finance his scientific education. While he was teaching in Illinois, the Civil War broke out, and Powell enlisted in the Union Army, studied fortifications, and became a friend of Ulysses S. Grant. He was in charge of the ditch construction for the siege of Vicksburg. It was during the Battle of Shiloh that his right arm was shattered by a miniball. Even after the amputation, with the care of his wife, Emma Dean, he participated in the battles of Atlanta and Franklin.
He left the service, as a major, in 1865, and accepted a position as a professor of geology and curator of the museum at Illinois Wesleyan University. River trips before the Civil War and a field trip with students to the Rocky Mountains in 1867 inspired Powell to begin plans to explore the canyons of the Colorado River. Frontiersmen and fur trappers had navigated the upper parts of the river, but no one had ever completed exploring the river to its mouth (now under Lake Mead). Powell had four wooden boats built that he hoped would withstand the rumored rapids, whirlpools, and falls. To his lead boat, the Emma Dean, he had a captain’s chair lashed to the deck and, from there, he handled the tiller and filled his notebooks with his observations.
On May 24, 1869, he and his nine recruits headed down the Green River with the cheers of well-wishers ringing in their ears. By the time they reached the end of their expedition, three members were dead, two boats were smashed, and most of their provisions were lost or were unfit to eat. The scientific expedition had changed to one of survival. Three months and six days later, on August 30, 1869, they came out of the Grand Canyon and were greeted by four fishermen who had been watching for floating debris from the “ill-fated John Wesley Powell Expedition.”
Among Powell’s accomplishments on this first trip, was the discovery (by an American explorer) of the last unknown river in the United States, known as the “Dirty Devil,” and the mountains it skirted, named the Henry Mountains. With his constant climbing and careful map making, he had shown the wide drainage of the Colorado River, and described the river as the daughter, not the mother, of its tributaries.
Powell convinced Congress of the importance of continued research in the West and was granted $10,000.00 to establish the Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region. In the summer of 1872, he completed a second descent of the Colorado River, returning with more data.
Afterwards, he resigned from his university position and went to work for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. He published his combined findings in The Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons. It included information on the Native American tribes and the observation that the nation needed a single government agency to oversee exploring, mapping, and inventorying the river’ s natural resources.
Among his many accomplishments, Powell helped organize the United States Geological Survey and became its second director. He set the standard and began the huge job of drawing and publishing quality maps of the United States, including the topographical maps used by today’s hikers. He also served as the Smithsonian’s Bureau of Ethnology from 1880 until his death in 1902. The last part of his life was spent on philosophical and ethnographical writing. (he coined the word “Amerind” to distinguish American Indians from the natives of India.)
His understanding of the aridity of the West was ignored by most of the people moving to the Great Plains, where they had been assured that “rain follows the plow.” The lack of water west of the hundredth meridian had been understood by Powell. He had stated that the West could not be changed even if all the surface water between the Columbia River and the Gulf of Mexico were to be used. He could not have known of the water stored in aquifers. (The region’s groundwater is projected by some current experts to be depleted within the next one hundred years.) Consequently, his vision and insight needs to be heeded. His proposals for laws to protect the West were partially addressed by the creation of the Bureau of Reclamation in 1902; his warning that there is too little water to irrigate all the land remains largely ignored to this day.
Displaying intelligence, creativity, and enthusiasm, this self—made man of science put his love of his country and his belief in serving the public good foremost in his life. He died on September 23, 1902, in Haven, Maine, and is buried in
Arlington National Cemetery.